Friday, April 10, 2009

The harrowing journey of 'Sin Nombre'

"Sin Nombre" -- which translates to "without a name" -- has an abundance of an important movie ingredient: pulse. Although it expands our knowledge about the problem of illegal immigration, "Sin Nombre" shouldn't be regarded as a medicinal dose of socially oriented cinema.

Director Cary Fukunaga believes in big-screen excitement, and he begins his movie by introducing us to the fearsome Mara Salvatrucha gang in Mexico. To be initiated into the gang, 12-year-old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) must submit to a terrible beating. Willy (Edgar Flores) -- a young man who already has begun to see his life as stunted -- sponsors Smiley's initiation. Willy may not have found an alternative, but he's aware of the dead-end dangers of gang life.

Willy's conscience -- perhaps awakened by his relationship with a young woman outside the gang -- brings him into conflict with the gang's leader (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). Mejia's Lil' Mago can be cordial, but he's also ruthless and sadistic. Willy eventually takes flight from the world of gangs and heads north.

I won't tell you how it happens, but Willy soon encounters Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a young woman from Honduras who's making the trip north with her father. Her initial meeting with Willy is anything but placid.

Scenes in which Fukunaga brings Willy and Sayra together take place on top of a freight train on which the migrants have hitched a ride. To call this an uncomfortable way to travel understates the case. These travelers are exposed to the violence of the weather and to roving bands of gangs who prey on them. It's a harrowing journey, and Fukunaga doesn't have to tell us that no one would undertake it without being driven or desperate, probably both.

"Sin Nombre" -- in Spanish with English subtitles -- is well acted and convincing, a reminder that the problem of immigration is multi-layered and complex. The movie's immigrants head north for a variety of reasons: to search for a better life, to feed their families or to escape some form of terror.

"Sin Nombre" introduces us to some of our unacknowledged neighbors to the south, people who risk so much in an effort to cross our borders. As we watch, we hope for the best and brace for the worst, and we realize how difficult it must be for many of these battered travelers to maintain hope in the face of grave danger.

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